New Solar Crops Tracking the Central Valley's Sun
Nestled among almond and fruit orchards, twelve new DG solar projects in California’s Central Valley are harvesting the sun’s resources with the Sunfolding T29 horizontal single-axis tracker. The trackers feed energy to critical agricultural infrastructure for a dozen different farm sites, offsetting the utility power required for lighting, water pumps, irrigation, and other high-energy-use systems.
The projects are part of an innovative energy cooperative, called the Solar Alliance, formed by four farming operations to take advantage of solar-friendly Ag-4 rates. The co-op worked around time- and resource-consuming utility infrastructure upgrades that the local utility company required for larger projects by distributing the project sites across multiple, adjacent parcels throughout Madera and Fresno counties.
Nuance Energy developed the projects and chose the Sunfolding T29 because it could be installed in a fraction of the time compared to competitor trackers and because the Sunfolding T29 is cost-effective on projects with tight land footprints. By bypassing the utility upgrades and installing the systems in record time, Nuance Energy helped each farmer save tens of thousands of dollars, and the Solar Alliance is expected to save $725,000 a year on utility bills.
These behind-the-meter projects are prime examples of how solar applications for ag can combine efficient land-use with effective tracking technology to bear the fruit of solar energy’s bounty without the added weight of high cost, high maintenance systems.
Solar trackers have particular benefits in agricultural applications, allowing for higher energy yield from the parcels of land allocated for solar harvesting. Trackers yield more energy than fixed-tilt systems, although trackers are historically associated with complicated motor-based machinery that renders them difficult to install and maintain, which can compromise the return on investment for DG projects. However, these twelve projects demonstrate that the Sunfolding T29 – a motor-free and wear-free tracker – eliminates the challenging aspects of installing and maintaining solar trackers, allowing farmers to take full advantage of the energy benefits of tracking the sun.
The Sunfolding T29 uses Sunfolding’s proprietary AirDrive to move the trackers, resulting in a motorless tracker design that requires fewer parts to install. Time trials performed at several of the project sites demonstrate the time-saving benefits of motor-less tracking, with installation completed nearly three times faster than motor-based trackers. As the time trials show, the Sunfolding T29 significantly reduces the most labor-intensive phase of a tracking system’s life cycle, cutting associated labor costs.
“I have been installing trackers for more than a decade,” noted Aaron Adams of Bonsai Solar, the Owner's Engineer for Sunfolding, who worked on the projects. “I simply haven’t seen a tracker that installs this easily or quickly. There is usually a pretty steep learning curve on installation, once you factor in logistics and assembly for so many parts. But Sunfolding’s tracker blew me away. The crew was able to jump right in and moved through all twelve projects really quickly.” Fewer parts represents a major breakthrough in tracker construction, easing timelines and costs during this labor-intensive stage.
Productive Hardware Decisions
Another key benefit of the shift in tracking methods with the AirDrive happens in the project design phase; tracker rows can be any size that the project stakeholders require, allowing the system to be sized to site specifics and power requirements. Customizable tracker row length is a unique benefit of the Sunfolding T29, which prevents customers from having to pay for ‘partial’ tracker rows to justify the high cost of a motor. Nuance Energy recognized that this would serve their customers, allowing the Solar Alliance co-op to further trim costs on hardware and bolstering the amount that the members recoup on their investment.
By allocating parcels of land to solar harvesting, these farmers are able to cut their operating costs and gain greater energy independence. And they are able to do so with systems that are nearly maintenance free, requiring only a periodic change of an air filter; a drastic reduction in maintenance man-hours and related costs compared to motor-based trackers with complicated machinery. This allows the farmers to keep their focus on the production of their fields, rather than on their solar systems.
Low maintenance also translates to the Sunfolding T29’s high performance: “These projects are showing a 99.9% uptime. That kind of performance simply can’t be beat,” noted Nuance Energy’s CEO Brian Boguess. “Our Solar Alliance co-op members get to see their utility bills significantly drop with their Ag-4 rate, without having to consider the added op-ex of maintenance on their systems. We see that as a win-win.”